Sep 222016

This week’s The Future is now – Trends in the Modern Workplace webinar was an opportunity to look at the trends affecting small and micro businesses.

What’s notable is almost all the topics affecting small business are being felt by their corporate cousins. It shouldn’t be surprising the technology and social trends affecting society are equally being felt

Now the webinar is over, I’ve posted the presentation to Slideshare with the commentary below, we cover established trends like the shift to mobile then ponder the future of business with artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

The presentation ties up with the post I published a few days ago that provides the commentary to the slides.

Sep 132016

One of the little discussed reasons for the US tech industry’s success is the role of military and intelligence spending by the government. Not only are various agencies funding research and enthusiastically buy technology, they are also being strategic investors in many companies.

In Sydney last week Dawn Meyerriecks, the CIA’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology, gave an interesting insight into the agency’s investment philosophies at the SINET61 conference.

The conference was aimed at drumming up interest in the technology security industry along with showcasing the connections between Australia’s Data61 venture and the US based Security Innovation Network (SINET).

SINET itself is closely linked to the United States’ security agencies with chairman and founder Robert Rodriguez being a former US Secret Service agent prior to his move into security consulting, venture capitalism and network-building.

Compounding the organisation’s spook credentials are its support from the US Department of Homeland Security along with the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), so it was barely surprising the Australian conference was able to attract a senior Central Intelligence Agency officer.

Investing in flat times

“Flat is the new up,” says  Meyerriecks in describing the current investment climate of thin returns. In that environment, fund managers are looking for good investments and the imprimatur of the CIA’s investment arm, In-Q-Tel, is proving to be a good indicator that a business is likely to realise good returns.

“If you can predict a market – and we are good predictors of markets – then the return on investment is huge,” she says.

“In-Q-Tel really leverages capital funding for good ideas. We get a twelve for one return, for every dollar we put in it’s matched by twelve dollars in venture capital in emerging technologies.”

Attracting investors

For the companies In-Q-Tel invests in along with those that supply technology to the organization, the CIA encourages them to seek private sector investors.

“What we’re telling our supply chains is you go ahead and tap into the capital markets,” Meyerriecks says. “If you can turn that into a commercially viable product then will will ride the way with the rest of the industry because it’s good for us, it’s good for the country and it’s good for the planet.”

Adding to the CIA’s attractions as a startup investor are the opportunities for lucrative acquisition exits for the founders, she believes. “Not only are we using that venture capital approach for emerging technologies but our big suppliers are sitting on a ton of cash.”

Diversity as an asset

Another lesson that Meyerriecks believes will help the planet, and the tech industry, is diversity. “Globalisation has show isolationism doesn’t work,” she says.

“Back in the day when I was a young engineer the best way to make sure your system was resilient was to harden its perimeters. the best ways to be ‘cyber resilient in the old days was by drawing the barriers to keep the bad guys out.”

“The best way to be cyber-resilient in the old days was to draw big boundaries around yourself to keep the bad guys out. The latest studies look at other things because you want to be resilient, you want high availability.”

Now, system diversity is seen as an asset.“Biologically the three factors that contribute to resilience are the ability to adapt, the ability to recovery and diversity,”  Meyerriecks says. “We look to deliver high availability among components that may not themselves have high reliability.”

The future of investment

“I think we’ll see commercialisation still driving investment for applied R&D in particular,”Meyerriecks said in a later panel on where the agency is looking at putting its money.

“The big game changers will be around the edge, taking SDN (Software Defined Networking) to its logical extreme giving everyone their own personal networks, not just in data centres but at the edge of the network.”

“I think there’s lots of things that the commercial industrialisation of the technology and physical system are going to force us to grapple with on many levels.”

Risks in managing identity

An interesting aspect of Meyerriecks’ talks at SINET61 was her take on some of the technology issues facing consumers and citizens, particularly in the idea for individuals having their own personalised network.

“This opens up a whole range of things, ” she suggests. “Do I eventually not just be an IMSI or EIMI (the mobile telephone identifiers) but do I become an advertising node, does that become my unique ID? Do I a become a gaming avatar?”

“Then we get into the whole Big Data area. Computational anonymity is a phrase we use. At some point people start saying ‘this is crossing the line’ – it crosses the ‘ooooh’ factor.”

Changing Cybersecurity

“I think the definition of cybersecurity will be expanded to much more beyond wheat we’ve classically thought about in the past.”

Meyerriecks’ presentation and later panel appearance was a fascinating glimpse into the commercial imperatives of the United States’ intelligence community along with flagging some of the areas which concern its members as citizens and technology users.

The US security community’s role in the development of the nation’s tech sector shouldn’t be understated and Meyerriecks’ observation that private sector investors tend to follow the CIA’s investment path underscores their continued critical role.

Sep 112016

Why did the Concorde fail? Website Vox has a nice mini-documentary on the iconic supersonic airliner of the 1970s which looks at why the aircraft never became popular.

Fuel costs, opposition to supersonic flights and the aircraft’s limited passenger capacity are all factors cited in the story.

Passenger capacity turned out to be the main reasons why the project wasn’t a commercial success as the economics of the airline industry changed over the decade it took to develop the aircraft.

Wide bodied jets such as the DC-10, the L-1011 and, most importantly the Boeing 747, offered much better profits and reliability for airlines while the 1978 US airline industry deregulation act democratised air travel in the world’s biggest market. The 1973 oil shock which saw fuel prices was .

As a high priced luxury, the Concorde couldn’t compete in that market. It was only the British and French governments absorbing development costs that allowed Air France and BA to fly it for as long as they did.

Interestingly, we’re seeing a similar shift affecting the Airbus A380 which has been affected by the airline industry shifting from four engine long distance jets to cheaper two engine planes and consumers show their preference for ‘point to point’ networks rather than ‘hub and spoke’ operations – the biggest customer for the A380 is Emirates Airlines which routes almost all of its global operations through Dubai.

The Concorde was one of several brave experiments of the 1960s but its demise shows that despite how impressive the technology was, it was no match for economic reality. That is something we need to keep in mind as we marvel at today’s advances.

Concorde image from

Aug 312016
Can overinflated job titles affect a business

Are senior executives lost when discussing their company’s digital strategy?

At the Huawei Connect conference this morning in Shanghai, Nigel Fenwick, a Vice President and principle analyst of Forrester Consulting, released his company’s study titled Business and Technology Leadership in a Post Digital Era.

Forrester surveyed 212 IT and business managers across selected markets in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific for the survey and found only four percent of business leaders were confident they understood their companies’ digital strategy.

Even more worryingly less than ten percent of business IT leaders claimed they understood their organisation’s digital strategies.

The reason for this, Fenwick believes, is the pace of change in the technology sector as managers struggle to put digital innovations into the context of the business.

Exacerbating this lack of understanding is how companies are ‘bolting on’ digital strategies to their existing business models rather than thinking about how their industries, products and markets are being transformed, Fenwick says.

There’s little new or surprising in Forrester’s report and the small and selective data set doesn’t inspire confidence in the survey’s results. It is however a good reminder of the challenges facing today’s boards and executives in understanding the consequences of a rapidly changing economy on their businesses.

Aug 302016
we need to treat chinese markets carefully

At the recend Autodesk University event in Sydney I had the opportunity to talk with Pat Williams, the company’s senior vice president for Asia Pacific.

Williams’ beat covers all of Asia and he’s based out of Shanghai where he’s been based for the last eight years and prior to that he spent a decade in Japan.

Having spent so much time in North East Asia, and heading to the PRC the following week myself, it was interesting to hear Williams’ views on how industry is changing in China and ther country’s attitude to American software companies.

“There’s a lot of noise that gets made in China about their local IP and the local vendors and what I say is ‘the Chinese companies are competing in a global market and they are under the same competitive pressures as everybody else in the world so when they find a better tool they use it. Despite all the noise, business is quite good there.”

For the Chinese economy, the aging and increasingly expensive workforce presents a problem, something addressed by the China Manufacturing 2025 plan which sees the country increasingly competing in high tech sectors such as aerospace, telecommunications and biotech fields.

“China’s kind of an anomaly,” says Williams of the country’s immense growth rates. “From a government perspective there’s a lot of horsepower behind the things that they do – China 2025, their manufacturing initiative, you’ve got what they’ve been doing with Building Information Modelling (BIM) and our architectural tools.”

They’ve really kind of spearheaded what we’ve been talking about on things like 3D printing of houses. China on its own is just this mushroom that’s happening.”

While the industrial shift in China and the rest of Asia is promising opportunities to companies like Autodesk, that change is affecting their workforce as well with the company announcing plans to lay off ten percent of their workforce earlier this year.

Those cutbacks are part of the adjustment to a new market reality says Williams, “it was part of right sizing the business.” He observed “we realised our margins were going to be compressed as we move to a subscription model.”

Autodesk’s shifts illustrate how the opportunities in the new economy don’t come without costs even for the companies that seem to be winners in a shifting marketplace.

In China, American companies are finding they have to a unique proposition – companies like Apple and Autodesk are good examples – and as the country moves its economy further up the value chain all foreign businesses are going to have to show how they add value.

Succeeding in a changing economy isn’t without uncertainty. And it certainly isn’t without risks.

Aug 242016

“I’ve been betrayed, I’ll never buy another Apple product again!” was the cry in 1998 when the company announced their new range of iMacs and portables wouldn’t support the long standing Apple Development Bus (ADB) system and floppy disks.

At the time Apple had been in decline, only the year before Microsoft had bailed the company out with a few conditions that had deeply irritated the company’s loyal customer base.

Many of those customers – mainly in education and graphic design – had invested deeply in ADB compatible equipment and their irritation at abandoning that investment for USB based kit was understandable.

Today we’re seeing similar protests about the rumoured dropping headphone jacks from the upcoming Apple 7 device, customers aren’t happy about the possibility being forced from a well established standard to a less reliable and likely more expensive system.

Unlike the computer world of 1998 today’s marketplace is very different, Apple is no longer a quirky and niche product but the most profitable of the tech industry’s giants – as Microsoft was back when Steve Jobs swallowed his pride and accepted Bill Gates’ bailout.

However most of Apple’s profits come from one product line, the iPhone. While the iPhone is probably the only truly consistently profitable smartphone, it competes in a fiercely fought for consumer market.

Already in China, one of the company’s most profitable markets, the iPhone’s market share is falling in the face of good quality but slightly cheaper Chinese and Korean devices.

Should Apple push those consumers too far by shifting the iPhone to a more expensive or proprietary system then the competing Android devices may well pick up market share and dent Apple’s fat profits.

However history shows that these hardware shifts do happen and older technologies are supplanted by more expensive, but better, inventions regardless of how much users have spent on the status quo. A century ago the automobile started replacing a millenia of investment in horse drawn technologies.

In the case of Apple abandoning the ADB back in 1998, it was the spur to adopt the USB standard which up until then had been buggy and unwanted as Bill Gates himself had found.

As history shows, Apple thrived after ditching the old technology despite the complaints at the time and if the company resists the temptation to lock users into a proprietary system there is no reason to think the same can’t happen again.

Apple mouse (with ADB connector) courtesy of Wikipedia

Jun 282016

“If you’re digital now, you’ll be cognitive tomorrow” says Ginni Rometti, the head of IBM.

Rometti was talking at the Sydney IBM Think forum today where she laid out the vision of IBM’s role in the data rich organisation of the future,

IBM’s pitch is that services like their Watson artificial intelligence platform is a key part of business as companies try to differentiate themselves in the new economy.

While Rometti’s view is correct, the question is whether IBM are the company to do this. The audience in Sydney were largely incumbent corporations and government agencies, it was almost sad that some of the panelists citing their digital smarts were from Australian businesses that have been tragically leaden in responding to changes to their markets over the last two decades.

In the first panel Rometti was joined by Andrew Thorburn and Richard Umbers the respective CEOs of the National Australia Bank and the Myer department store chain.

Thornburn’s comments about NAB being an agile fintech company were somewhat at odds with the reality of Australia’s housing addicted banking sector but Umbers’ view that Myer is leading the way in customer experience is almost laughable given how his company has missed almost every development in retail over the past twenty years.

Leaden corporations are Rometti’s core customers however – it still remains true that no-one at companies like Myer and NAB gets sacked for buying IBM.

“We’ve been part of your past, and I hope we can be part of your future” was Rometti’s conclusion of her keynote. It remains to be seen whether her customers are part of the future.